President Lee C. Bollinger Discusses the University’s Vital Role in Society

September 27, 2017

Only a few blocks of Broadway separate Columbia’s classic Morningside Heights campus from the transparent glass and steel structures on the University’s new campus in Manhattanville, but the contrast between the two signifies more than a shift in architectural styles.

From the outset of his tenure, President Lee C. Bollinger has focused not only on creating new and improved physical spaces around the University, but on developing new academic structures that extend Columbia’s research and teaching across traditional disciplinary boundaries. From neuroscience, data science and precision medicine to globalization, climate change, freedom of expression and the future of journalism, Bollinger says it’s essential for students and faculty to have the opportunity and facilities to explore new areas of knowledge that address the issues confronting society.

Manhattanville was designed for such collaboration and public engagement. The Lenfest Center for the Arts now provides public performance and exhibition spaces for the School of the Arts and the Wallach Art Gallery, while the Jerome L. Greene Science Center creates an environment for an eclectic mix of scholars to work together at the frontiers of neuroscience at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Next year, these buildings will be joined by the University Forum, a long-needed venue for academic conferences, symposia and lectures. In 2022, Columbia Business School will move to its new home in Manhattanville, creating additional space for the arts and sciences on Morningside.

Bollinger is one of the country’s foremost First Amendment scholars, and teaches “Freedom of Speech and the Press” to Columbia students each fall. For decades, he has also been one of the nation’s most outspoken champions on the importance of diversity in higher education, and he has been at the center of the long legal effort to preserve affirmative action.

President Bollinger spoke with Columbia News about these changes and where the University stands at this moment in Columbia’s—and the nation’s—history.

Q. Columbia begins this academic year, for the first time in nearly a century, with a new campus. What does Manhattanville mean for the University?

A. When we started planning Manhattanville, we knew it had to have architecture that made a statement in the way that McKim, Mead & White did at the turn of the 20th century, but it had to be very different from that architecture and design in tone. This time it had to be open—no gates and walls— and face outward rather than inward, relating to the city with a sense of engagement. We have the great architect Renzo Piano to thank for realizing that for us. But it’s Columbia faculty and students who will really bring the idea to life. You can already see that in the Zuckerman Institute’s public brain science education programming on the main floor of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the immediate impact of the School of the Arts and Wallach Gallery having the ability to be a full partner in the thriving Harlem arts scene. The gallery’s inaugural Uptown exhibition of local artists has drawn in visitors who would likely never have found their way to the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall. Once the Business School moves we will have five or six thousand people on the new campus and that will only be a third of what will come.

To understand Manhattanville, it has to be seen in the context of the huge redevelopment of spaces across Columbia. From the Northwest Corner Building and renovation of the Alumni Center on Morningside to the Vagelos Medical Education Building and the new Nursing School in Washington Heights, to name just a few projects, there has been an enormous investment in campus facilities. In Manhattanville, we have been able to expand and add new dimensions to the University that provide a model for how we do our best thinking today and how we relate to the city and world around us. It’s really an important, even momentous, development in Columbia’s history.

Q. What is a university’s role in a time like this? And what is Columbia’s role?

A. Like a lot of people, I’m surprised and to some extent shocked by where the country has gone with last year’s election. Many of the issues that we focus on as a society, like developing free expression in the age of new technologies and globalization, or diversity and inclusion across society, improving public health and the environment, developing opportunities for people across income levels, are all things we’re working on. Now, suddenly, new serious problems have emerged. And I think that in addition to the issues we have taken on over the past few years, we also have to return to fundamental questions of democratic norms—what does it mean to live in a society that believes in and respects the rule of law, a fundamental value that is being openly challenged?

Q. What level of participation and involvement in public affairs should a university have?

A. Columbia doesn’t have a position on issues like trade policy. But as a university we do have a position on truth and the value of reason in dealing with social problems. We have a right to participate and speak about issues of diversity and inclusion. We have an interest in speaking about the appropriate allocation of national resources to the discovery of new knowledge. And so we must be much more forthcoming, even aggressive, in the ways in which we interact in the society right now. It’s different for individual faculty, and of course for students, who can and do express their opinions as they choose. And at Columbia, they certainly do so.

We participated in litigation on the Trump administration’s revised travel ban, where we signed an amicus brief with 30 other colleges and universities to describe how it would have a negative impact on the academic life of our schools. At the same time, I authorized signing documents that more strongly objected to the policy on its merits, and I made a statement about the dangers to the academic community and to the broader society of how this stirs up and reinforces negative stereotypes and actual private violence. This really goes to both our core values and our ability to fulfill our basic role in society.

Q. Why has it been a priority to make Columbia a center for addressing new challenges to freedom of the press and free expression in the digital age?

A. It was in the works long before the 2016 presidential election results, but in February we launched the Knight First Amendment Institute. Questions about free speech are increasingly in the social media and online space where the companies that run these platforms are not imbued with the same commitment to free speech that marks traditional news media. We set up an independent institute with support from the Knight Foundation that will be ready to participate in litigation and policy, education and research, to preserve and help redefine free speech and a free press. It’s also the case that many news organizations— both old and new—simply don’t have the financial resources they once did for legal actions often needed to obtain public records or defend their right to publish. The Knight Institute joins initiatives that we have developed at the Journalism School in recent years, such as the Tow Center and the Brown Institute, which are inventing and teaching new forms of digital reporting and storytelling. Our Data Science Institute is also an important part of the picture given how many of these issues arise in the digital environment. And Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression initiative provides legal research and engages in global debates on the norms for protection of freedom of expression and information around the world. I see universities as inherently aligned with the interests of the press and in groups of people who value dissent and diversity of opinion. The press and universities are also very much alike in that we’re driven by a parallel ethos of informing the public by seeking facts and knowledge, even if we generally pursue them at a different pace.

Q. To what extent do you consider freedom of the press and free speech under threat today?

A. Free speech is counterintuitive—you’re not born believing in free speech. As a First Amendment expert, my view is that every single generation has to relearn free speech. It’s only after a society has considered the alternatives, thought about the roles of censorship, developed notions of the people being the sovereign rather than the government—these are things we think of as somewhat elementary, learned after civilization experiences horrible things and then tries to correct them. I always see anti-free speech, that’s my line of work. But there’s no doubt that the trends around the world are going in the wrong direction, including here in the U.S. We’ve experienced earlier eras of intolerance for dissent and threats to free expression, but the kinds of presidential attacks on journalists as “enemies of the people,” the relentless claims of “fake news” and disturbing online intimidation of individual journalists are an alarming abandonment of the foundations of public discourse.

Q. One area where universities themselves have been criticized is in not wanting to hear speakers whose views may be controversial or unpopular. What is the remedy for that? 

A. Universities can always improve their performance in many areas. Some universities make the basic mistake of not upholding the principle of academic freedom. They can fail that principle in many ways, but one is by inviting somebody to receive an honorary degree and then withdrawing it under pressure from one group or another. Then there are all the examples of speakers whose messages may have been deeply offensive to some and they were not allowed to speak. I think that’s a minority of universities and students, but it’s been elevated to a trope that the next generation wants to be protected against offensive speech. I find there’s tremendous interest among our students about issues of freedom of speech and press. It’s a complicated subject, and people must remember that the jurisprudence isn’t even 100 years old. There were no cases before 1919. The American model of free speech really only dates to cases in the 1950s and ‘60s, mostly ‘60s, ‘70s. If I ever worried that I would be in a field that might become outdated, that was a huge mistake on my part. Every single year of my life has been a banner year for concerns about free speech.

Q. You have called for a new initiative called Columbia World Projects. What is the impetus behind that, and how will it fulfill its mission?

A. It’s never been more clear that there’s a need in the world, and within universities, for our intellectual life to have greater opportunities to work on the major issues and problems of our society beyond our normal academic work and research. The Columbia World Projects will do that, working with outside partners on real solutions within specific time periods. Columbia has a history of responding to world needs, and many of our faculty have long been engaged in problem-solving and policy-making outside our campus. Columbia discoveries across disciplines in applied science and technology benefit society and the University. It’s still early to talk about the specifics, but the goal of Columbia World Projects is to establish a dedicated structure for supporting this kind of problem-solving work by faculty and students in a far more systemic way. You can take every one of the broad initiatives of the University, and say each has been touched by the need to expand knowledge and educate the next generation, but also to do it in a way that responds to society’s problems.